Cobwebs by the Thames
London Tower entombs a rich (and sometimes lurid) history
Story and photos by CNN Interactive Associate Producer Jenna Milly
LONDON (CNN) -- More than 900 years old and duly ominous, the Tower of London looms high over the city's East End. Located on the river Thames, this medieval fortress served as a prison, castle and armory for centuries.
As tourists arrive at the Tower gate, they are greeted by traditional Yeoman Warders. Nicknamed Beefeaters, their predecessors served as guards beginning more than 500 years ago. These days, they are tour guides leading tower guests through a chilling maze of English history.
Before the days of castle tours and friendly Beefeaters, visitors who approached the tower gate from the outside stood face to face with a ghastly sight -- the moat. The depth and width alone could have discouraged intruders, but the Beefeaters contend that the moat's most valuable asset was the unbearable stench.
"There were dead dogs and cats floating about," says the Beefeater who guards the western entrance. In fact, the gore went even further; human bones were found when the moat was drained.
Once into the tower courtyard, there are dozens of Beefeaters -- dressed in vintage red, black and gold costumes from the Tudor period -- ready to take you on a tour around the castle.
Beheading blocks and prisoner towers
The Tower of London was established during the reign of William the Conqueror (1066-1078) on the remains of a Roman fortification. The grounds include the scaffold site where King Henry VIII executed two of his six wives, the Bloody Tower where Sir Walter Ralegh (the navigator and courtier known now as "Raleigh") was imprisoned for 13 years and the White Tower which houses an exhibition of kings' armor and torture instruments.
Traitors were often publicly executed outside the castle walls on Tower Hill. Now it is a bustling underground stop on London's District and Circle lines.
The grounds include the scaffold site where King Henry VIII executed two of his six wives, the Bloody Tower where Sir Walter Ralegh (the navigator and courtier known now as "Raleigh") was imprisoned for 13 years and the White Tower which houses an exhibition of kings' armor and torture instruments.
Describing the excitement of a public beheading, the Beefeater says, "there was no television or cinema back in those days. Only the rich could afford theater tickets.
"They would come kicking and screaming and cheering," he says of the thrill-seekers who gathered to catch a glimpse of the chopping block.
Date with the executioner
The Beefeaters re-create the grim moments before the execution: Cloaked in black, the executioner approached the blood-stained block with a somber gait -- and then took a few minutes to stretch his throwing arm. It's said that prisoners would scrounge up every shilling they could find, bribing the man in black to make the swiftest possible blow.
It's said that prisoners would scrounge up every shilling they could find, bribing the man in black to make the swiftest possible blow.
After the execution, the head would then be placed atop the Tower Bridge to serve as a warning to all other would-be traitors.
Beheadings are only the beginning. Tower of London tours cover 900 years of England's monarchy -- from the crown jewels and dungeon walls to the mysterious (possibly murderous) disappearance of child-king Edward V and his brother in the Bloody Tower when their uncle became king in 1483. The Tower Bridge, adjacent to the back entrance of the castle is a museum with a spectacular panoramic view of London's skyline.
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